It takes focus and dedication to become a real musician.
"Practice Man, Practice"
It takes real work to be a real guitar player. Someone once said "It's 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration." Here are some tips to help you make your best progress.
We've all heard the joke. Man walks up to a stranger on a New York street and asks "How do ya' get to Carnegie Hall?" Stranger (obviously a jazz musician) replies "Practice, Man. Practice." So true ... so true.
Music is a wonderful thing ... isn't it? Hours of entertainment ... the things it makes us feel and imagine ... the connection with our culture, peer group and friends ... how it can take you off to another world at least for a little while. If you think listening to music is cool, playing music is actually a thousand times cooler ... and composing your own music is cooler still! Music has been very good to me ... the times I've had ... the friends I've made ... the chance to get my inner angels and demons out ... the satisfaction of creating some real art. It's such a blast.
But all of this comes at a cost. It takes work to become a real player. Ask any of the great ones. They make it look so easy up there on the stage. But for every minute up there, they spent a thousand hours back in "the woodshed" ... hackin' away with that axe. Practice, Man. Practice.
I don't imagine I'm telling you something you don't already know. I'm sure your parents told you a thousand times that nothing of any real value comes easy in this life. You know you're cracked up to be a musician if even the dullest, boring exercise still ain't too bad. You're havin' an OK time. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can feel yourself progress. If you don't, you might as well hang it up right now and get another hobby.
Despite what the whiz kid down the block tells you, you're going to have to practice every day ... or almost everyday ... to get to a place where you truly satisfy yourself enough to continue playing an instrument all through your life. For every 75 people who start out on the journey, only one will still be playing (on any meaningful level anyway) in 5 years and only one out of a thousand will ever make any serious money at it. I'm not telling you this to discourage you ... but life is short and you've gotta' be realistic. Why start something you're not going to finish?
I knew I was going to be a player pretty early on. With me, it was never my parents saying "Get your butt in there and practice your instrument!". It was more "Put that damn thing down and go do your homework!" Practicing for me was always at least sorta' fun ... frustrating at times no doubt ... but ultimately satisfying. I knew where I wanted to go and I could see myself getting there little by little.
Over the years I've been able to observe a lot of players at practice and I can tell you that there are better and worse ways of approaching it. You can waste a lot of time if you don't practice smart. Here are some tips that might help you maximize your routine.
You really do have to be at it at least a little bit every day ... even just a few minutes. Otherwise, the progress you made in a particular session evaporates over the intervening days. It's just a simple fact. Remember music is a language and you have to remain somewhat immersed in it to master it. Think back to grade school. You didn't work on your language skills one day a week. You did a bit of it throughout the day ... every day.
It's tough when you're an adult and life gets in the way. Folks try to make it up by practicing 4 hours on the last day before their lesson. It rarely helps much. You might even overtax your hand which can lead to physical problems like Tendonitis or Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. If you're just starting out, you have to pace yourself ... a little bit every day.
How long should you practice everyday? There are many schools of thought on this. Part of it involves deciding what kind of player you're going to be. If you're going to be the next world class concert pianist or modern jazz phenom, I guess you're going to have to practice all day ... everyday ... and many of them do. I saw this young Asian pianist on TV the other day. He was premiering a piece of modern "classical" music ... a concerto by a modern composer I had never heard of before. It was just amazing. I swear ... the guy's fingers were moving so fast, you couldn't even see them. They were a blur. He had this huge grin on his face. He was obviously having a blast ... but I kept thinking "That must be all this guy does ... practice all day!"
"Don't bother practicing longer than you can keep your concentration. After that, it's wasted anyway."
For the rest of us mortals, you do what you can. For hobbyists, a half hour a day is a good figure to shoot for. An hour is better. For folks hoping to make a career of it ... a couple of hours or more might be prescribed. One of the best teachers I ever had said "Don't bother practicing longer than you can keep your concentration. After that, it's wasted anyway." I'm sure he knew that sometimes you have to work just to force yourself to maintain concentration and that should be addressed as well. I think he meant don't be slave to the clock. If you're getting mind-boggled or fatigued, get up and away from it for awhile. Return to it later when you're refreshed. You'll find you instantly play better then when you let it go earlier. There is such a thing as over-practicing.
There are distinct areas of the language of music that you have to address and, in some sense, they need to be approached uniquely. The main areas might be theory, technique, ear training, rhythm and notation. Let's look at these individually.
Learning your music theory isn't really practicing I guess ... but it is something you need to address everyday. Those who know me know that I stress the understanding of the language of music. Trying to be creative with music without understanding the language would be like trying to write poetry without knowing how to spell words, construct sentences or create pantameter (the "beat" of the poem). Like any language, music has stuff that is very much like spelling, grammer and vocabulary. You have to realize that you have a significant amount of memorization to do. Again, if you don't do a little everyday, you forget stuff. You have to go back over it again and again and that just wastes time. Try to set a few minutes a day aside to look through your theory notes ... quiz and review past concepts and try to progress into some new areas.
One interesting note. Many folks confuse music theory with notation. They come in to take lessons saying "I already know my music theory. I can read half notes, whole notes etc." They've missed the point. Music theory is about understanding the patterns we use in music (scales, chords, rhythms) and how to integrate them to create songs. It all goes on in your head. Notation is how this stuff appears on the page in front of you in written form ... two related but separate beasts all together.
As you may know, many rock n' roll guitarists don't know how to read standard notation at all. So why should you? You might be surprised where you ultimately wind up in music. When I was in high school, I thought I'd be playing The Beatles and Led Zep forever. If anybody had told me I'd eventually gravitate toward Jazz, I would have laughed. But after awhile, rock just got to be too much of the same ol' for me. I began to hear these awesome players like Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Al Di Meola, Pat Metheny and I was hooked. You just can't learn more complex styles of music without knowing at least the basics of how to read. Fortunately, I was forced to learn to read at an early age. I never even knew I had a choice. I now wish my reading skills were better than they are ... but I do OK. Also, if you ever have any aspirations of attending music school ... like college level ... they won't even let you in the door if you don't know how to read ... so I say just get over it and get on with it.
Many people resist learning to read because, again, it wasn't explained to them very well and it looks all complicated and intimidating. Once again we find that it's really pretty simple and logical if you get it explained to you the right way. Folks ask "OK ... if it's so simple, how come I struggle with it so much?" Remember ... music is a language and it takes hard work and time to learn to read any language. You didn't learn to read English overnight. It took you years! Folks ask "How come my last teacher stuck me in this exercise book and made me read Mary Had a Little Lamb and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star until I just wanted to shoot myself?" Sadly, that's kinda' how you have to do it. You have to start simple. Learning to read English, you didn't start off reading Shakespeare. You started off reading "see-the-cat-run." You have to be prepared to be a little bored at first. You have to have the right attitude. If you thought you were going to start off learning to read with Joe Satriani ... "FUGETABOUDIT!"
Some teachers overdo this of course ... stick you in the boring book and that's all you do. I try to strike a balance ... spend some time in the boring book ... spend some time on their favorite songs playing more by ear. The irony is most kids can learn to play a Nirvana song years before they could actually read that same tune off the printed page. But I guess that's not really too surprising either. After all, you could speak the English language years before they even tried to teach you how to read it ... right?
So if you're going to develop your reading skills, you'll have to set aside a certain amount of practice time each day to work specifically on that ... and learning to read can be a distinctly different process than learning to play. For example, when working on reading, you don't want to go over the same piece time, after time, after time. Why? Because by the time you do it for the 10th time, you've begun to memorize the piece and you might be playing more from memory than from actual reading ... and that doesn't help you read better. Best to move on to another piece and return to that one again later. It's good to have several pieces going at the same time. In fact there is an old adage among musicians. "Read a pound of music a day." Doesn't matter what it is (as long as it's at your skill level) ... doesn't matter if it's music you like or hate .... just try it a couple of times and move on to something new ... and then something new again.
Practicing your playing skills is a different matter all together. There you want to play it over and over until you totally get it down. This is the area of practicing technique. You need to set aside a portion of your practice day to work on your physical facility on your instrument. This might consist of technical drills, scale and arpeggio exercises, chord formation etc. I guess this is the most obvious aspect of practice and so I don't really have a lot to say about it. There are innumerable books, magazines, CDs, videos and online resources full of technical exercises you might want to work on. Try to pick ones that address aspects of the music you want to play. You don't need to study Yngwie Malmsteen's method if ya' just wanna' play Grunge. There's this guy on the internet ... sells this incredible compendium of scale and arpeggio exercises ... a truly masterful piece of work ... but I've had several students call me complaining they have no idea what they're supposed to do with all this stuff. "Heck man ... I just want to play maybe like Clapton. Do I really need to master The Hungarian Minor Enigmatic Spanish 8 Tone Gypsie Scale in every position on my neck just to play Layla?" The answer is of course no.
Again, you have to be at it every day to prevent your muscle development from atrophying. It takes considerable physical strength in the hands and arms to hold down a job in a real working performance band. Think of that Blues band you saw last Saturday night. They went on at 9pm and jammed their brains out until 1am ... with a couple of 20 minute breaks. They played 4 sets of like 12 tunes each. That's like 50 songs! Here you are cramping up after 25 minutes of practice. That's gotta' tell you something right there. You're not ready to join the band quite yet! Time to start "pumping some serious iron" down at the ol' six string gym. Like any physical exercise, you have to balance the "no pain-no gain" thing against overdoing it and hurting yourself. Give your hand plenty of time to cool off between "reps".
You also need to work on your ears. Ear training is the single most important skill that any musician must develop. Music is an audio art form after all. The most important thing about it is how it sounds. If music is a language, then all these patterns we use (chords, scales etc) are very much like the words in the language. Each one sounds like something and it sounds different from all the other patterns. With work, you can memorize what all the different patterns sound like ... and that's like it man ... the keys to the kingdom. That's what ear training is all about. That's where you get do do all the creative things with music ... jam and improvise ... write your own songs ... figure out even the most complex songs "by ear".
In any good ear training program, you work out with a coach who already knows what these patterns all sounds like. You're given clues as to what to listen for to identify a particular pattern and then quizzed to see if you can recognize it when you hear it. It's a long and sometimes frustrating process. Many folks have never even heard of it let alone know what it is ... which is a little odd as it is generally the second required course (after theory ... and you do need a reasonable understanding of theory to do any serious ear training) at any legitimate college level music school. When I started teaching, almost none of my students had even heard of ear training. That situation has improved over the last decade or so. There are now many ear training courses on CDs or online that you might look into ... but I say you can do a lot of it yourself at home if you know how.
All good ear training programs involve singing. You listen to a particular pattern and then try to sing the various note relationships within it. This helps anchor them in your memory. You might start with your intervals as all the more complex musical patterns can be thought of as strings of intervals. Take a perfect 5th for example. Play 2 notes a 5th (7 half steps) apart. Now sing those 2 notes. Try to remember what that relationship sounds like. You might try to think of a song or riff you know that contains that sound relationship to help it stick in your head. Now play 2 more notes a 5th apart and sing them ... and then another 2 notes.
Now play a single note and try to sing the 5th without hearing it first. Now play the 5th. Did you get it right? Try again ... and again ... and again until you can nail that sucker every time. Suddenly you begin to hear that interval in the music all around you! It's a beautiful thing. Move on to other intervals ... 3rds and 7ths. Then you can begin to string intervals together to form scales and arpeggiations of chords. Suddenly you're listening to music in a whole new way. You're able to recognise the melodies and chords that make up the song! Wouldn't that be awesome? I can figure out whole songs just driving along listening to the car radio! How cool is that? Finally your own imagination takes over and you begin to hear the patterns inside your own head. That might be where you start to write your own songs. This is how you might become a great improvisor ... playing those powerful and passionate guitar solos. You make them up inside your head ... so make sure you set aside some time everyday to work on your ears.
Rhythm is, of course, one of the fundamental aspects of music and you're going to have to get a plan together to address it. I suggest you get some kind of mechanical time keeper to work with to help develop your own internal time clock. In the old days we all used metronomes. Some of us can even remember the old wind-up, pendulum types. My Mom always had one on top of our piano. Tic-Toc-Tic-Toc. Now we have various plug-in, battery operated, digital types ... some very fancy and complex ...and they are still useful in some contexts.
I actually don't recommend metronomes anymore ... mostly because they're boring. Nobody ever had much fun playing with them. Tic-Toc-Tic-Toc ... Yawn. We live in the marvelous age of electronic drum machines. They're a lot more fun to play with and in many ways are actually superior time keepers. They tell you more than just the tempo of the pulse. They tell you which beat in the pattern you're actually on utilizing the different drums in the kit. You learn that the Bass Drum is usually on beat 1 and 3 ... the Snare Drum is usually on 2 and 4. It helps you feel the passage of the repetition better.
The easiest and cheapest way to get your hands on a drum machine is to get one of those plastic, department store electronic keyboards ... say Casio or Yamaha. You may already have one kickin' around the attic or something. "Gee didn't we give one to the kids for Christmas a few years back? Where is that thing?" ... or maybe your neighbors have one up in the attic. They're all over the place.
If you're going to buy one new, be prepared to spend about $100. You're going to want one that is satisfying to play along with. It should have good sound quality (or it will sound more like a video game than a human playing the drums ... and that's no fun) and at least 100 rhythm patterns (often referred to as styles) to choose from. That way, you'll find a pattern that will work with most any song you could ever want.
You should have your beat machine on every single moment that you're practicing ... at least in the beginning. If you can't play it "in time", you can't play it period. You just have to face it. Way too many folks let themselves off the hook when developing rhythm. They think they'll learn to play the chords first and add the rhythm later. It just doesn't happen that way. You can actually use rhythm to drive you on and help you learn your chords in less time! Start real slow. Turn the tempo way down ... as slow as you need. Practice switching back and forth between chords every 4 beats. Now increase the tempo a little and try it again. You'll master those chords in half the time it takes others who don't use the beat to spur them on. All your scale fingerings should be practiced in time as well. Ever wonder how those speed demon Rock stars got so fast? It's simple ... hundreds of hours practicing with that ol' beat machine ... notching the tempo up bit by bit ... getting rid of every last little bit of wasted motion ... developing economy and efficiency of movement and a killer internal time clock. It's really a lot of fun!
So that's a lot of it right there. Time to get down to the real work of being a real player. Be patient. Don't expect too much too soon. Don't get discouraged if something doesn't come as easy as you thought. A little discipline and dedication will get you there if you challenge yourself to practice smart. We hope to see you jammin' it up with your garage band ... makin' a few extra bucks playin' Saturday night at the club downtown ... Heck! ... maybe even Carnegie Hall. Practice, Man. Practice!
Scotty West, guitar teacher and creator of the Absolutely Understand Guitar Video Lesson Program